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KU lecturer slams vaccine policy for people with learning disabilities

By Laurynas Puikys Feb 1, 2021

Campaigners around the country are calling for the UK government to rethink its decision not to prioritise people with a learning disability for Covid-19 vaccination.

Only those with Down’s Syndrome or a “severe” learning disability are named in the priority guidance, with those whose learning disability falls beneath this threshold to be treated on an age basis.

“The difficulty is only some people with a learning disability are currently on the prioritisation list. They’ve based it mostly on age and that doesn’t really consider that people with a learning disability die at a much younger age,” Irene Tuffrey-Wijne, Professor of Intellectual Disability and Palliative Care at Kingston University, told Nursing Times.

A study by Public Health England in November last year found that people with a learning disability are six times more likely to die from Covid-19 than the general population.

The first phase vaccination priority list by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation puts people into one of 10 groups. Those with Down’s Syndrome are in group four, while people who have a severe or profound learning disability have been placed in group six.

“Three out of five people with a learning disability do not reach the age of 65,” Tuffrey-Wijne said.

The KU professor criticised the fact that the highest priority group only encompassed residents and staff in care homes for “older adults”. This meant that younger care home residents with a learning disability would miss out, Tuffrey-Wijne told Nursing Times.

Call for change

Kingston Mencap is among those campaigning for people with learning disabilities to be made a higher priority for vaccinations. The charity’s former Chair, Gill Wood, says that the situation is “dreadful”.

“People with a learning disability deserve to be given a chance to survive this pandemic. Matt Hancock simply must include everyone with a learning disability in priority group six, if they do not already fall into a higher category.

“The current guidance leaves individual doctors, already under considerable strain, to make a judgement about the severity of someone’s learning disability before allowing them to receive a jab.

“Many people with a learning disability will be excluded from having this potentially life-saving vaccine, despite them dying at more than six times the rate of the rest of the population.

“We are talking about people who are so often excluded in different areas of life, facing the challenges of lockdown and cuts to their support. We cannot sit back and watch them be left off the vaccine priority list,” Wood said.

Wood says coronavirus restrictions have prevented her from visiting her 58-year-old sister who has Down’s Syndrome and lives in supported living accomodation in New Malden.

“My sister is classed as ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ and hopefully will receive her Covid-19 vaccination very soon as she’s in priority group four.

“She lives in with three co-tenants and except for short exercise walks and medical appointments, she has been shielding for weeks with just one staff member to support.

“Family members have never been allowed inside the house and every time we visit for a walk or take her for a medical appointment, we have to do a lateral flow test.

“This doesn’t make me want to visit too often now and I feel we are losing connection with our sister,” Wood said.

You can find out more about Mencap’s campaign on behalf of people with a learning disability on their website.

By Laurynas Puikys

Journalism student from Kingston University and Editor of The River. Main interests: books, basketball and motorsports.

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